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Mendhi hands by Pushpa Jain. Photographer unknown. All rights reserved.Fish decoy. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Embroidered dress detail. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Cedar bird by Glen VanAntwerp. Photo by Al Kamuda. All rights reserved.
Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo by Al Kamuda

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Eli "Little Elk" Thomas
1985 awardee, Mt. Pleasant (Isabella County), black ash basketmaker, dance, and storyteller

Eli "Little Elk" Thomas (1898-90) was a respected elder of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. His great-great-grandfather, his great-grandfather, and grandfather were born in Indiantown, a settlement near the town of Saginaw. He remembered a time when the marshes nearby yielded wild rice that he and his family harvested in the fall. Eli was born and raised near Alpena where his parents worked as loggers and, as a teenager, Eli also worked as a logger and a sawyer for several years. Eli learned basket making by watching his grandparents and parents. From them he learned how to select and harvest the right black ash tree best suited for baskets, pound it "for two or three days" to obtain the strips which are split and shaved into smooth splints, and to prepare the natural dyes that did not fade, unlike the commercial dyes so many weavers now use. He liked to use oak and beech (or alder) to color his splints.

He made all kinds of baskets--laundry, market, bushel, jewelry, hankie, hampers, a coarser type one made to wash Indian corn in--as well as a basket rattle. He also made strawberry baskets, but he did so with caution. "The strawberry basket is one you don't play around with. The history or story of the strawberry basket is when a person dies who is good, he goes to the happy hunting ground and then half-ways there (it is two days there), he sees a great big strawberry and gets filled up and can go the rest of the way." (1)

Eli, whose parents did not speak English, was proficient in Ojibwa and English. His language skills were important in helping to tell traditional stories, to sing traditional songs, and to officiate at Ojibwa ceremonies as he was often called upon to do. With Don Stevens and Whitney Alberts, he traveled around Michigan and beyond sharing traditional stories, music, and dance at pow wows, schools, and other public venues. The annual pow wow in Mt. Pleasant has been named for him.

(1) Thomas, Eli. Audio recorded interview with Patricia Dyer. 25 October 1988.

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